MADISON — Pivoting sharply from their decision last year, school board members voted unanimously Monday night to apply for federal school improvement funds, available after the high school was named one of Maine’s 10 low-achieving schools.

The decision, urged on by the principal and some teachers of Madison Area Memorial High School, is a change from last year when School Administrative District 59 board members voted to not apply for the funds.

The high school is one of two in the state to make it on the low-achiever list two years in a row, due to low scores and slow growth over the previous three years on standardized reading and math tests.

Along with Nokomis Regional High School in Newport and other schools, Madison high school is now eligible for a piece of $4 million in turn-around funds.

Lawrence High School in Fairfield also made the list, but the district’s school board members voted Thursday not to apply for the funds.

Madison high school principal Steve Ouellette spoke at length Monday about the number of ways the school could benefit from the grant money, available under the federal Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

The school can improve students’ mathematics and literacy competency and prepare students more for tests, Ouellette said. It can improve its advisor program, extend a freshman transition process to other grades and expand a newly started homework club. It can focus more on community involvement, partner with colleges and keep revising the curriculum.

Much of what the grant could accomplish lines up with recommendations resulting from the school’s recent accreditation process, he said.

In order to accept the federal money, the 10 schools on the list must choose from four turnaround plans laid out by the Obama administration. Madison’s high school probably would opt for the “transformation” model, Ouellette said, which requires changes in the way material is taught, increases the amount of time students spend in class and calls for the replacement of the principal if he or she has worked at the school more than two years.

Though Ouellette began work last fall, he said the board should apply for the funds even if it meant he had to be replaced.

“I really believe this year we’ve made some great strides,” he said. “I think this would give us a good opportunity to use some federal funds to make our school a lot better.”

Superintendent Lyford Beverage said he was “very, very opposed” to applying for the grant last year. He believed the changes that were needed, such as a more rigorous curriculum and changes in instructional time, could be accomplished without money.

“I frankly felt that the grant would have been more of a distraction than an asset,” he said. “I’m very much a local-control guy and a Constitution guy, and I am leery of people who would come in and take control of something that’s yours.”

“I think the school is in a different place this year,” he said. “It may be it’s kind of a perfect storm of opportunity for us to move on with some very special activities that would not be funded inside the regular budget.”

Chris LeBlanc, student services and activities director, said he trusts the education leaders at the state level now to allow districts to pursue the changes they want to make. Education Commissioner Stephen Bowen was sworn in March 4 by Republican Gov. Paul LePage.

“They’re good people. I think they’re sincere. I’d put my trust in those people that are in there right now,” LeBlanc said.

Troy Emery, chairman of the board, previously opposed applying for the funds but said the school has made “great strides” so far without “government intervention” and is in a good place now to have the principal and teachers drive further improvements.

“Timing is everything,” he said.

Some of the improvements that took place this year include starting the high school day about half an hour later and providing students study halls in which to complete their work, Superintendent Beverage said in an interview. Also, improvements have been made to the language arts and mathematics curriculums, and much work was done to prepare for the accreditation process last fall.

Accreditation occurs every 10 years and determines whether students are achieving all they can and whether a school is meeting education standards. Beverage said he opposed applying for the federal funds last year in part because he didn’t want the accreditation process “to play second fiddle to something else,” such as implementing a school improvement grant.

Following federal guidelines in determining the low-achiever list, the Maine Department of Education ranked the averages of schools’ reading and mathematics SAT scores over the 2007-08, 2008-09 and 2009-10 school years. Maine high school juniors take the examination as required under the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Schools on the low-performer list either are eligible for or receive Title I funds, which are directed toward low-income students.

The 10 schools can apply for up to $2 million a year for up to three years, said David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the education department. The five schools on the list that receive Title 1 funding have priority for the grant.

“There’s a possibility there would be nothing left after that,” Connerty-Marin said.

The high schools in Madison, Newport and Fairfield do not receive priority because they spend their Title 1 funds at other district schools.

That’s precisely why the Fairfield-based Regional School Unit 49 board chose not to apply for the funds for Lawrence High School, said Harry Fitzpatrick, vice chairman of the board.

“We didn’t feel we had a chance of getting it, so we more or less figured it was a waste of time applying for it,” he said.

The school board of RSU 19, based in Newport, plans to discuss the grant at its board meeting at 7 p.m. Tuesday at Nokomis Regional High School, Superintendent William Braun said.

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